Monday, March 02, 2009


When first exploring new music, I was excited and impressed by special effects or extended techniques.  As a musician, I eagerly — and to the dismay of my band director — tried to master all the tricks (many of them staples of Spike Jones's City Slickers)  found in Stuart Dempster's The Modern Trombone, especially those involved with altering the spectrum of a tone or playing broken or falsett tones, in-between the ordinary modes of resonance.  At the same time, many of the clever effects in scores by composers like Crumb or Childs got tried out in the safety of my parents' house, on and inside the piano, an old violin, my brother's clarinet, my sister's harp, or on the steady stream of other instruments borrowed from school.  A lot of this was like learning to perform a magic trick, as far as I was concerned, I just wanted to know how it was done and I had little interest in practicing enough to have the fluency required to put it onstage.  

Piano preparations, two sorts of fluttertongue, all sorts of objects to mute tubes or strings, seagull calls from gliding harmonics... wonderful stuff, and extraordinary when a good musician incorporates them seamlessly into her or his technique.   Indeed there are some techniques —  like wind multiphonics, directing the breath so that the tube vibrates at several modes simultaneously, producing a chord — that are so context-, instrument-, and performer-dependent that they are compositionally daunting to incorporate into a work and frequently best left to virtuoso composer-performers who are writing for themselves, or, as is often the case, improvising. 

At the same time, I took two warnings into consideration.  The first was from a talk by Terry Edwards of the Electronic Phoenix Ensemble, in which he remarked that EVT, or "Extended Vocal Techniques", really meant "Everyday Vocal Techniques", which I took to mean that all of these noises had a perfectly ordinary context (visit a busy playground if you don't know what I mean) and that the "standard" modes of singing had their own special status with respect to this larger context.  The second observation was a devastating single word critique I once heard in response to my youthful enthusiasm for a Crumb piece: "precious."  That critique I took as an invitation to more seriously consider the economy of sounds within a work,  a project which continues to be active. 

Recently commissioned to write a piece for a chamber ensemble known for doing all sorts of special techniques and effects,  I went into my bookshelves and dug out a number of works on extended techniques which I had eagerly studied years ago.   They are sort of like cookbooks, with recipes for one sound or another.  (My copy of Gardner Read's Contemporary Instrumental Techniques, which I bought new in 1976, had long ago fallen to pieces from overuse, just like my old copy of The Joy of Cooking.)   But I soon returned the books to the shelves and wrote a piece of some 17 minutes that uses very little more than modo ordinario, and two strategically important events in the score that could be considered special effects are essentially visual, intended to break the continuity as well as to defeat the likelihood of a sound recording.   It's not that I've lost any allegiance to these special effects, but the composition in progress never required them, and in my new piece, if things work they way I've planned, modo ordinario will be quite special indeed.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a trumpet player I'm embarassed to admit that in Higs School I learned how to do circular breathing as a sort of gimmick, but I never figured out double tonguing...